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A brief history of UK baseball
Early bat and ball games
A brief history of UK baseball Early bat and ball games
Baseball and Cricket: Cross-Currents
Allen Synge details the relationship between the national bat-and-ball pastimes of the US and the UK.
Failure of a mission In the year 1859, rather like General Howe's redcoats nearly a century earlier, a party of 'all-star' English professionals set out to retain America - in this instance for cricket.
The mission can be adjudged a failure, largely on account of a certain misplaced commercialism. The players wanted the best of both worlds. They were anxious not to lose their English summertime salaries. At the same time they were keen to avail themselves of the handsome £50 per man offered by the American sponsors. As a result, the tour was undertaken in the late Fall when the side would be bound to face adverse weather conditions.
Indeed, the tour concluded with the notorious 'Frosty Match' played at Rochester, NY, on October 21, 24, and 25 between Eleven of England and Twenty-two of the United States and Canada. The home side was wrecked by the round-arm bowling of John Wisden (of the Cricket Almanack). But dismissal appeared to come as relief to the half frozen batsmen. "Shiver my timbers, I'm out!" was the relieved cry as they made a dash for the warmth of the pavilion. The home side was beaten, early on the third day, by an innings and 70 runs, but in fact, it was cricket that was defeated on the fields of Rochester. Lillywhite tells us: "The remainder of the day was spent in a match at base-ball, which was got up to lessen the severe loss of the promoters of the cricket match. According to good judges, the English cricketers played remarkably well, and (wicket keeper) Lockyer's playing behind the bat could not have been surpassed."
The Cricket Field, US edition In fact, cricket was reasonably well established in the US at the time of Lillywhite's tour. As it happens, I have a copy of the American edition of the classic manual, The Cricket Field by James Pycroft published in Boston in the same year. You wouldn't find Simon Schuster, for example, bringing out Mike Atherton's hints on batting these days! The book's original owner, a Mr Charles Jackson of the Chelsea (Mass) Cricket Club, records in his own hand a busy cricket season with challenges from Bunker Hill and most of the other Boston suburbs.
Images from the Base Ball Player's Pocket Companion.
Despite all this heartening activity, you get the impression that the book's publishers may just have sensed that they were backing the wrong horse; they are certainly in the process of changing horses in mid-stream, or perhaps, like Lillywhite's promoters, are looking to baseball to recoup their expenses. The back of volume is an extensive, and lavishly illustrated advertisement for the Base Ball Player's Pocket Companion, with vital "directions for playing the Massachusetts Game and the New York Game"; which, of course, had nothing to do with the St John's Wood Game.
In other words, we may be looking at a turning point when cricket would begin to give ground (and even grounds) to baseball in America, a process which we are told the Civil War would hasten and nearly complete. With 'nearly' all America won for baseball - I will deal with the exception in due course - the time would have seemed right for the conquest of England. Why didn't England yield?
The cult of the 'Straight Bat' Just when baseball was in a position to begin to make inroads on cricket on its home ground, England's summer game underwent a fundamental administrative change. The management was removed from the hands of mercenary professionals like William Clarke and Fred Lillywhite and came under the control of the upper-class idealists of the Marylebone Cricket Club at Lord's. These gentlemen made it their business to stamp their approval or disapproval on the various strokes available to the batsman. They came down heavily on the 'hook' and the 'pull', indeed any stroke that savoured of the baseball batter's cross-the-body swing. The 'straight bat', aimed towards the off, was enshrined as the epitome of style and even as the hallmark of moral rectitude.
Again, cricket had suddenly acquired a giant champion in the person of WG Grace, who between the mid-1860s to the end of the century would bring crowds flocking to the broader bat and ball game. Grace's formidable bat was as straight as any Lord's purist could wish and he himself was a vigorous upholder of orthodoxy. "Young batsmen should not be allowed to practice the stroke; indeed they should be severely reprimanded if they show any tendency towards pulling!" he wrote in his book of Reminiscences.
In fact, such was the great man's fear of straying from the straight and narrow path that, according to CB Fry, he would even contrive, by an extraordinary rotation of the body, a straight batted drive to a ball wide of the leg stump. In this context, it will be seen how the principles of baseball would be regarded with any amount of raised eyebrows. We are looking back at a culture which saw the young BJT Bosanquet, the inventor of the 'googly', threatened with expulsion from Eton if he attempted any more 'uneducated shots'.
It's perhaps significant, too, that the beginning of this century saw a concerted attempt to eliminate 'throwing' from cricket. A number of famous careers were ruined and the fast bowler and batsman CB Fry was compelled to concentrate exclusively on batting, which he did to memorable effect. From time to time, notably in the late '50s, the spectre of throwing has reappeared, causing the authorities to react with the utmost severity for fear that the whole cricket castle could come tumbling down. Thus it can be said that the twin precepts of the 'straight bat' and the 'straight arm' have formed a barrier through which baseball has not found it easy to pass.
Further attempts to bowl out baseball Meanwhile, England didn't abandon her efforts to turn back the tide of baseball in the US. In late August 1872, for instance, the Secretary of the MCC himself, a Mr RA Fitzgerald, led a touring party to Canada and the US with WG Grace as the star attraction. While Fred Lillywhite's overriding aim had been to market his patented scoring machine, Fitzgerald's purpose was purely missionary. The tour saw some exciting cricket but could not be described as a diplomatic triumph. WG Grace was ridiculed for making the same speech at every port of call: "Gentlemen, I thank you for the honour you have done me. I have never tasted better oysters than I have tasted here today, and I hope I shall get as good wherever I go."
Then the team got into double trouble - first from the Philadelphians for rushing off to catch the train to Boston and from the Bostonians for missing the train and arriving a day late, too late to play a crucial match with influential Harvard. The remaining Boston match was played, significantly, on a baseball ground which heavy rain, or the god of baseball, soon turned into a quagmire. A delicate hint was dropped by a local sports hero when he presented each member of the England team with a baseball, a gift dismissed by Grace in his memoirs as 'an interesting relic'. The hardships involved in travelling back to Canada may have helped to decide WG not to tour the New World again. "As we passed through Maine we came under the veto of the famous Prohibition Laws and had the curious experience of being absolutely unable to get, for love or money, anything stronger by way of refreshment than thick soup washed down by tea!"
Wartime opportunities for baseball in Britain The two World Wars saw baseball and softball played in England on an unprecedented scale in and around the camps of the Doughboys and GIs. There is a nice baseball scene in the British wartime movie The Way to the Stars which has an RAF officer, played by Basil Radford, scampering with bat in hand straight for the pitcher to the merriment of his US Army Air Corp allies. As I remember, the local lads around the base were always generously encouraged to join in. Indeed, Robin Marlar, the former Sussex spinner, writing in The Cricketer in August 1957, recalled post-War attempts at outright bribery on the game's behalf:
"The lure of unlimited popcorns, ice cream and candy floss has enticed children and their parents away from the cricket grounds of West London to the American base at Ruislip where these nourishing foods are handed out with typical largesse. This generosity reminds me of a summer's day when an exhibition match was played at Harrow in 1945. After the game, bats, balls and gloves were given away ad lib."
Marlar reckoned, perhaps a little patronisingly, that the reason baseball has failed to take root here was that it is "too much akin to the kindergarten or girlish pastime of rounders". Marlar, as a Sussex man, may also have had in mind the quaint local game of Stoolball, which is chiefly worth watching because it is played by lithe young country girls and is, interestingly, said to have derived from a ball game played by milkmaids using their milking stools for bases. We can appease the fairer sex here by claiming that this generally feminine pastime is, in fact, a father of both the games under discussion.
Baseball influences on cricket's development Baseball may have failed to conquer cricket but it has exercised significant influences on the English game's development. Let me turn first, or rather at last, to the 'Gentleman of Philadelphia' who continued to play cricket long after the rest of America had turned to the other game and who in their tours of England in 1897, 1903 and 1908 showed they could give most English first-class counties as good as they got.
The 'gentlemen' of the various elite Philadelphia clubs were, it has to be faced, a bunch of moneyed snobs. Indeed, I sometimes think that it was the snobbishness of Philadelphia which was largely responsible for branding cricket as a 'stuck-up' game in popular American perception. In any event, as they prepared to set out for England in the summer of 1897, the Gentlemen of Philadelphia found they were short of a really penetrative bowler. A non-'gentleman', in that his trip had to be subsidised, was recruited by the name of John Barton King (1873-1965). King had a lethal delivery which he called 'the angler', a product of his experience as a baseball pitcher, which, time and again, would prove the ruin of English batsmen. On his last tour in 1908 'Bart' King topped the England bowling averages with the extraordinary figure of 11.01 which was not to be bettered until 1958 by Les Jackson of Derbyshire with a figure of 10.99.
You may be the judge of 'Bart' King's impact on the English game when I tell you it was confidently rumoured that he was offered the hand of a rich widow in order to enable him to play regularly as an amateur in county cricket. Technically, the impact was altogether more far-reaching. England's faster bowlers, who had hitherto depended on sheer pace with perhaps a last second application of spin, suddenly became 'complete anglers' in the Barton King mould. A former trundler like Yorkshire's George Hirst started to shatter stumps with balls that ducked in, some said, with the force of a hard throw in from mid-off. The 'swingers' multiplied through the decades to the near- extinction of the Lord's purists' beloved off side play.
By and large England continued not to play baseball, but Australians did. And this fact alone began to reflect adversely on England's performance in Test matches. Good fielding was not traditionally a great feature of English cricket. Even in 'The Golden Age' (the first decade of this century) we find a statistician calculating that a total of 1,439 surplus runs had been scored in one week in July by batsmen who should have been safely caught by the fielding side.
Since the beginning of the 'Ashes' Test matches, Australians have tended to produce safer pairs of hands. In his book The Art of Cricket, the great Sir Donald Bradman suggests an explanation - Australian cricketers play baseball, at least their finest fieldsmen tended to have. To quote: "Those who have watched crack baseball teams know how they get under a catch and never seem likely to miss. The glove is a tremendous help of course, but many baseball-cricketers still use the same technique with bare hands. Neil Harvey was an arch exponent of this and that wonderfully safe catcher Victor Richardson always took the ball as high as possible." With the advent of one-day cricket, English fielding has improved immeasurably, even though we still seem to drop the vital catches. But it can reasonably be claimed that the improvement began with Englishmen imitating Australians who played American baseball.
Summary It's nearly the year 2000 and the two nations still seem set on keeping their national games to themselves. In the US, cricket has crept in through the back door with the Caribbean leagues. But I am not aware that many new converts have been won, although an Indian New York taxi driver told my son the other weekend that he was proud to have seen Ted Dexter bat at Hove.
Certainly, Philadelphian cricket is today a series of disused temples. I visited the Philadephian Cricket Club itself in 1989. Now an elite country club, it keeps the name and the snobbery and an actual cricket bat still hangs over the bar. However, the barman was unable to offer any explanation as to what the curious instrument might be. Here your distinguished body continues the fight to win English hearts and minds for your cherished game.